August is high season for antiquing in many places around the country, so we offer here a few thoughts to keep in mind as you head out to shows, markets and auctions.
1. Buy the better one
We often hear dealers and seasoned collectors advising new collectors to “buy the best that you can afford.” Our advice is similar, although focused more on wisdom to keep in mind when you have a choice between two similar pieces.
The hard reality of material life is that most of the time you do indeed get what you pay for, so the better one will cost more. As long as you can afford the higher price, accepting the brief pain of paying it will make you happier in the long run. This lesson is summed up nicely in a quotation we came across on houzz.com: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”
We learned this lesson a long time ago when we sold a hickory chair that was an appealing and uncommon form in weak condition for a fraction of what that style’s value sells for in good condition. Two years later we saw the customer again after the seat weaving had fallen through, and all she remembered was purchasing the chair from us rather than our warnings at the time about why the initial price was so low.
There are plenty of relatively inexpensive antiques that are well worth owning and enjoying, and antiques in age-worn condition are enthusiastically and wisely bought and sold every day. Your standards should depend on how, where, why and for what purpose you will use an antique. But if you have a curatorial instinct and have the chance to be selective within the category you’re pursuing, or to upgrade as better pieces become available, then you will ultimately be more satisfied with your collection for having chosen the better one more often than not.
2. Know the difference between expensive and overpriced
Each year we exhibit at a summer antiques show in New Hampshire during a week when there are several high-end shows running back-to-back. We often hear exclamations along the lines of “Things are so expensive!” from shoppers chatting about the various shows. I usually try to tease out whether they mean things are expensive because they are high quality, or expensive because they are overpriced.
It is natural when seeing dealers’ best wares in booth after booth to feel a bit of sticker shock. But being on your toes as a shopper means keeping in mind that an antique with a high price tag could be a fair deal, or even a great deal. Something tagged $10,000 might actually be a bargain if similar forms typically do or will sell for $20,000. So how can you judge if a price is a fair retail value? See our next piece of advice.
3. Rely on dealers to help you learn
People who are naturally cautious buyers can be reluctant to engage in discussion about a piece with the person who is selling it. Yet it does not take long to recognize the difference between an empty sales pitch and deep knowledge on the part of the seller. More often than not, antiques dealers are thrilled to answer your questions, whether about the piece itself or about its price structure. Most dealers want people to feel good about their purchase and come back for more, so it makes solid business sense to share as much knowledge as possible. We have seen customers’ interests and collections grow and become more refined the more they have tapped into our expertise over the years, and that is very satisfying for all involved.